Hong Kong Cinema—The Reconstruction of Identity

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Hong Kong’s historical situation can be understood in terms of Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities. He defines a nation as “a social constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.” Only a year after Anderson’s book was published, in 1984, that the PRC and UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It declared that the UK would hand over the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the PRC on July 1st 1997, and set agreements on the “One country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong has never been a nation with its own sovereignty, it has been “imagined” by different groups of people that have perceived themselves as part of the same nation. The imagination began with British people, who imagined Hong Kong as their territory of the other continent. Since then, Hong Kong has become an “uncanny” place with a blurred identity, where local people live in their home yet it is not their “home.” Examples from Hong Kong cinema that depict this uncanniness is the Happy Together (2007). At the beginning of the movie, Lai Yu-Fai shows his BNO (British National Overseas) passport to a customs officer. This document becomes proof of his identity as a resident of Hong Kong. The passport becomes a container for the imagination of nationhood, allowing both British and Hong Kong citizens to read themselves in relation to each other. British passports are issued with a special type P, indicating that Hong Kong is a territory of the UK and a special one. However, Hong Kong citizens are not granted British identity as normal British people who were born in England. This situation reveals how discourses of Orientalism and the binary between self and the other still exist in issues of nationhood. Hong Kong remains an imagined place, where people perceive themselves as part of the UK community while living life as Chinese.

These problems of identity in Hong Kong reveal the perception of self and other in general. It seems like people believe in the authenticity of the blood/nature within the life (human life and the life of cinema) in order to understand, give meaning and categorize it to make it eligible. One of the reasons why Hong Kong cinema is still interesting is because it does not fit into national categories. I would like to start from this point, to understand how Hong Kong cinema becomes “the other” and how the younger generation of film directors are becoming more willing to blend the binary between Hong Kong and other places. More recently, the younger generation of Hong Kong cinema seems to be continuing the trend toward realism. The protagonists in Pang Ho-Cheung’s films, are normal people that we can find on the street, who are presented as neither good nor bad. If regarding this shift as an identity issue, it allows people to look back on us instead of questioning others. It is more rhetorical, but still effective in questioning the moralizing gaze and weakening the invisible walls between individuals. Also, as Mainland China has more open policies on importing Hong Kong films, they do have the restrictions on the content and the theme of the film. In order to get films distributed in the mainland market, a film can have two or more versions, which is the case for almost every film by the Pang that have been legally distributed in Mainland China. Sometimes there are differences in editing between the versions, and at times Pang can change the whole story of the film. The directors try to adjust to the difference set by the mainland government by moving to the mainland China to make their films but they are not making films for one group of national viewers but for two and therefore the problem of making two versions remain. The main advantage that is accrued with directors moving to the main land, is the diminishing in binary of different national identities and their blending.

Born in the 1973, Pang experiences several historical times for Hong Kong and witnesses the conflicts caused by these shifts. He started his career as a screenwriter for a TV channel in Hong Kong. From there he developed his love in writing. Now he is a novelist and a director. Most of his films are written by himself or rewritten from his novels. His earlier films are more melodramatic with bizarre stories and unexpected endings while his later films move to a more “serious” way. His most famous film from his earlier career stage is “You Shoot, I Shoot (2001).” The film ingeniously uses the same meanings of the shoot (shoot a film and shoot at a person) to build a low budget film with black humors and vulgar jokes. The professional killer is being hired by several people to shoot during the killing scenes.Unfortunately, the killer forgets to shoot when he is on a mission. He has to be a director and stage the whole scene in order to “re-make” the killing scene he supposed to do. The seriousness of the killer when he stages the filmmakers, pushes the films challenges of the traditional perceptions of both killers and filmmakers. It makes viewers wonder about the reality of this film since it is full of absurd elements. In comparison, his later films take different production values in which the pictures are more well designed and shot. The stories are developed in a more traditional cinematic language—the logic of film merging the logics of his daily life. The common thing about all of his films is the way emotions are expressed internally towards self rather than externally towards others. The way he achieves this is by presenting the normal daily life stories through the absurd narratives. In this research paper, I would like to do a close reading of Pang-Ho-Cheung’s film Exodus (2007) with the consideration of identity issue in Hong Kong. I argue that the film attempt to recover the identity problem of Hong Kong and its people through the presentation of binaries. The expositions are between police and villain, men and women, the logic and the absurd, familiar narrative and strange city among other things. It ultimately reveals the binary between good and evil that Hong Kong had. Generally, the film refuses the construction of binary between self and other engaging the possibility of otherness into the totality of the same through the changing of time.

Though it is titled “Exodus,” the film has nothing to do with the original Exodus story of the Israelites departure from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. However, the film implicitly talks about the similar story in a different setting about Hong Kong. The story happens right before 1997. Police officer Tsim looks into a case of a man recording inside the women’s restroom. The man says that he believes women discuss how to kill men in there, and there is a group called “women kill all men.” Kwan is there to collect evidence.  Tsim finds it is very absurd, but he still believes him and record testimony. However the testimony disappears after it’s been taken to the evidence room, and the man changes his confession as he is a voyeur when Tsim re-record the testimony for him. Tsim has no idea of what happens, so he tries to look into the case although his wife persuades him not to do that. Kwan was released soon after the new confession he made. Not longer after the release, Kwan disappears and dies in a couple days. Tsim runs into Kwan’s wife and tries to investigate what really happens. There seem to have disintegrated clues, Tism wants to connects everything together and find real evidence about the women killers group. During the investigation, Tsim develops a secret relationship with Kwan’s wife. Only nearly the end of the film, audiences are introduced to the background of Tsim’s wife and a policewoman Fang, who works in the same police station as Tsim. Both of the women belong to the women killer group. Usually, one film may have several versions due to different countries’ screening policy. The film may be categorized into different classifications, and cuts away any nudity, visual violence parts. With the slightest change of visual styles; the narrative of the multiple versions of the film remains the same. Audiences who watched different versions can still talk film on the same base since the basic narratives remain the same. Interestingly, the Exodus has two different endings, which leads the film to two different directions. The Hong Kong release version is Tsim goes to his promotion test but he keeps hiccuping when he introduces himself. The film ends with the sound of his burping. The other version is Tsim’s wife’s confession of her poisoning Tsim.  Both of the versions are Pang’s choice. The original version is being screened and distributed in Hong Kong and overseas while the version with the different ending were being released in DVD form in Mainland China.

A film of absurdity— “the evil other”

The film is explicitly about the relationship between man and women. The film starts with the wonder and fear that comes from men: “what do women do in the restroom besides to the toilet.”  Not knowing the answer, the film places women as the imagined evil other through the male’s perspective. Through this imaginative, it provides a “male gaze” view point as in other films. The only different is that the gaze here is more direct—Kwan says he uses a video recorder to watch the women in the ladys’ room in order to find what is going on. Unlike what Laura Mulvey suggests in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness…… But in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that they look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. (Mulvey, 11)

According to this, on one hand women are sexy object to be looked at. On the other hand, the lack of penis reminds men of castration psychologically. Women become the signifies of castration, which are threatening to evoke anxiety. Both of Mulvey’s ideas are being shown in Exodus, and are being combined together. The female characters in the film are not only sexy but also dangerous. They are beautiful wives or policewoman to be looked at, but the same time they are killers who kill men. In popular/mainstream Hong Kong films, there is always a wife/housewife image appears in the ultra masculinity film to balance and supplements the narrative, and give the film a hint of romance. However, the traditional female images that are obedient housewives no longer, exists in this film. Without the powerful enemies from the same sexuality as males, women here are being treated as the enemies of the men. This makes women much more scary than usual since the original fear of women comes from the unknown to women. The set up of this film creates a process as follows: women are different, we (men) don’t know them, they are mysterious, they are different, they are the other. Because they are not like us (men), we are good, so that they must be evil. However, everything is from the men’s imagination. Through Kwan’s confession to police officer Tsim we know that women are the “evil others,” but we never see women kill men until the very last part of the film. According to his confession, Kwan uses a video recorder to “watch/gaze” women in the restroom. The way he looks at women through camera reveals the “male gaze” that Mulvey talks. Nearly the end of the film it reveals Tsim’s wife’s reason of joining the women killer group—her father always beats she and her mother, which makes her hates him. Knowing that, the film victimizes both men and women. The men are the victims of women, and women are the victims of other men who harmed them before, no matter it is the villain Kwan, or the police Tsim, or even the women characters in the film. The gaze is not only applied to Kwan and Tsim, the male characters in the film, of their perspectives of women; the gaze is also applied on women characters since they are also being attracted by the men but afraid them at the same time.  Because of that, viewers cannot simply take the position of one character over the other. The differences between two sexuality transfer to the morality problem. By arranging the differences to the dynamics everyone experiences and encounters in daily lives, the film pushes the absurdity to its limitation. It criticizes how easily people transfer simple differences questions to complex morality ones, and creates binaries in actualities. These binaries include different identities, nationalities, races, or any kinds of differences in general. The hypothesis here foreshadows the critic of Hong Kong’s identity and films’ position later in the film.

The shift of identities

The binary between man and women brings out the absurdity aspect of life and challenges the differences between one and the other. The change of identities in the film between policeman Tism and villiam Kwan brings up the identity issues of Hong Kong in general.

The film starts with the wonder: “what do women do in the restroom besides to the toilet.” This question first makes Kuan wonder, so he goes to the women’s room to record. Believing Kuan’s change of testimony and his death has something to do with the women’s killer’s group. Officer Tsim keeps looking into the case after Kuan’s death, and insists to find evidence proving the existence of the group. Later, Tsim meets Kuan’s mainland wife, and develops a secret relationship with her during the investigation. Tsim, who is a justice police and a husband cares about his family, gradually becomes a policeman who sympathy for the criminal, has a relationship with the criminal’s wife, and a man who cheated on his own wife. He comes to act as Kuan intuitively, such as using a digital tape recorder to record findings, generally suspects any women who are involved in a crime scene when the victim is a man, naturally considered himself as a husband to Kwan’s wife and takes care of her.  Ironically, officer Tsim also disappears as the film ends with both versions. In the original version, he disappears with his burping sounds when he is on the promotion exam. The screen turns black to show his disappearances. In the other version, Tsim even didn’t appear in the final scene. He disappears before the film ends. Instead, the final scene is about his wife’s confession. In the first version, he disappears in a way that Kwan told him before during the first interrogation— The women killers group has a secret poison; it has neither color nor taste. However once take it, the person will be dead after a hundred burping. In the second version, the women are going to poison Tsim with this burping pill, they fail to do that since they were being caught by the police.

The shift of identity between two sides, the police Tsim and the criminal Kwan, violates the traditional logic of melodrama that Linda Williams suggest in “Melodrama Revised.” In the essay, Williams brings out five points to characterize traditional melodrama. The first one is “Melodrama begins, and wants to end, in a space of innocence” (Williams 65). The innocence of beginning and ending allows films gradually develop into climax and fall back down. It creates the traditional ups and downs of a classical narrative, three-act story structure. The film Exodus fails to commit this tradition of melodrama. The film starts with innocence but doesn’t return back to it in the original version of the film. The film begins with the daily routine of police officer Tsim at the police station with him changing the cloth to get ready for work. He says hi to her workmates and has a small dialogue with them. After that, he goes to the firearms room to check and load his guns. The use of long takes in this series of scenes prolonged the everyday routine of Tsim’s life. The long takes allow viewers to share the same of time with Tism. Viewers might find boring, since there is no anticipation of what will be happening. However it is also what Pang wants like viewers to feel—a sense of everydayness that arises from daily life but not of the cinematic excitement. It refuses the popular cinematic realism that every popular film and returns to the pure form of cinema to re.  During the time when looking into Kwan’s case and trying to figure out what is going on, the film gradually develops into climax but never reaches the climax—Tsim never finds out about the women killer group, nor does he take revenge on them. Viewers never know what happens to Tsim, maybe he dead or maybe he is not dead, but lives the life as he used to be.

The second feature is that “Melodramas focus on victim-heroes and the eventual recognition of their virtue” (Williams 66). This focuses on the victim. Williams says there are two ways melodrama can go. One is the victim-hero gets empathy, which equals to moral virtue, through a suffering; the other is the victim-hero turns his virtuous suffering into action—revenge. Williams also argues, “the key function of victimization is to orchestrate the moral legibility crucial to the mode… Virtue can be recognized in a variety of ways: through suffering alone or through suffering followed by deeds” (Williams 66). In the film, no one is the central character, and every character is the victim-hero. Kwan spots the women killers group. He struggles between whether to report the truth to the police or not, he disappears without taking revenge on the group. The lack of causality makes viewers hard to empathy for him. For Tsim, he suffers from the pressure comes from his mother-in-law for not being able to get promoted; he also suffers from not able to figure out the case. Later in the film, his secret relationship with Kwan’s wife makes him an irresponsible husband and losses viewers’ empathy. Shims wife, who we first know as a yoga-teacher and a nice wife who takes care of everything on the family, turns out used to be a member of the women’s killers’ group. She was a victim of her father and also a victim of her husband who cheated on her. Although both she and her friend (also belongs to the killer group) knows that Tsim investigates the case, but viewers never know if Tism’s on-going burping is caused by the poison from these two characters.

The shift of identity is shown in the scene where officer Tsim questions Kuan in an interrogation room. The narrative and the style of montage imply the binaries of good and evil, policeman and criminal. It foreshadows the setting up of self and other throughout the film. The whole scene was shot through the glass window from the room next to the interrogation room. The camera gradually zooms in from a long shot to a medium shot at the beginning of the scene. The scene starts from the dark room where camera placed.  The rectangular window is being placed at the top part of the image while the rest remains dark. Through the window we can see everything in the interrogation room. In the middle of it, Officer Tsim and Kuan sit opposite to each other. With the contrast of the dark shadows surrounded, it creates a frame within the actual film frame. The rectangle shape window almost likes a film screen, which creates a perspective within the film. It invites viewers into the story while making viewers aware that they are watching a film. With the slightly zoom-in onto .............


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